The Autograph Man

With his signed photos of boxers and ballet dancers, Hollywood royalty and hair bands, Jim Ashworth has turned clutter into a way of life
Tony Nelson

"You're not prepared for this. Nobody ever is," says Jim Ashworth, standing on the steps of his tiny St. Paul home. Inside, the cramped entryway bursts with wall hangings, including vintage sheet music, paintings of the racehorse Dan Patch, a life insurance form signed by Jimmy Durante, a photo signed by Amos and Andy, and an album signed by songwriter Sondra Lerche.

"Interesting guy. I met him at the [Electric] Fetus," says Ashworth, a 64-year-old retired teacher and lifelong St. Paul resident. "Over a year later I met him at the Fine Line. He looked at me and said, 'I remember you from the record store.' Mark Mallman did the same thing: 'I remember you! Taste of Minnesota!'"

He's hard to forget. Ashworth can routinely be spotted in the shadows of clubs--a balding, gray-haired man walking amongst the hipsters with a Sharpee in one hand, a record bag in the other, and a single-minded determination on his face. He has been collecting autographs since he was a teenager, when his letters to Mae West and Groucho Marx extracted signed photos. That act turned into a hobby, which is now a collection, which now numbers in the thousands.

You don't have to look hard to find memorabilia from hockey, baseball, and the Titanic, but his home is dominated by rock. His favorite band of all time is Sweet, and his favorites of the moment are the Redwalls and the Kaiser Chiefs ("not only are they very good, but they're very nice"). Stuffed alongside myriad signed artifacts by the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, David Bowie, and you-name-it, are locals Flamingo, Johnny Lang, the Suicide Commandos, the Suburbs, Soul Asylum, Plastic Constellations, and his current fixation, Melodious Owl.

The house of Ashworth may be the only place on the planet where countless "To Jim"s and "your friend, Floyd Patterson" dance with the ink stains of Rivers Phoenix, Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Ray and Dave Davies, Garrison Keillor, the Partridge Family, the Clash, Sammy Hagar, Lucille Ball, Joe Louis, Salvador Dali, Marc Bolan, Siouxie and the Banshees, Amelia Earhart, John Philip Sousa, Patti Smith, Sylvain Sylvain, and the Hives.

"The main thing is, if you get 'em in person, you get to know 'em a little bit and visit with them," says Ashworth, his eyes winking through wire-rim specs. His slight frame swims in a Doors T-shirt, offset by a crucifix hanging around his neck. "Even if you buy them, it's a connection with these people."

Aerosmith, Hanson, Joan Baez, the Troggs, Robert Plant, Bill Murray, the Knack, Foghat, Freddie Mercury, the Marx Brothers, Leon Durham, the Boomtown Rats, Ray Bolger, KISS, Hayley Mills, Ike Reilly, the Raveonettes, Josh Hartnett, Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort ("my favorite movie is Harold and Maude"), George Burns, Norman Rockwell, Milton Berle, Roy Rogers, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Cheap Trick, Savoy Brown, Michael Jackson, Bo Diddley, George Gershwin, Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Dean.

"I'm like a sponge," he says. "I just absorb. I don't sell anything. Some people who collect cars, they buy one and sell another one. But when things come here, they stay here. A lot of people don't understand why you'd want four or five albums signed by the same person, but to me, it's art. An artist can draw four or five different pictures and sign them all, but they're all different because they're different pictures."

"These are probably the most beautiful signatures I have," he says, holding two posters elegantly inscribed by Mikhail Baryshnikov. The artwork overwhelms every wall of the house, as well as the insides of kitchen cabinets, bedroom floors, and the bathroom door (Peter Frampton's Frampton's Camel). Part of why he lives alone and never married, he says, is because it would have interfered with his passion for collecting.

The end display is fine, but it is the thrill of the hunt that keeps Ashworth going. At the moment, his white whales are Richie Valens, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart. He "nails" his subjects at gigs, estate sales, auctions, and book and record stores. Sometimes he tries the mail. When the Mirage club closed a few years ago, he scored signed posters by Cinderella, Danger Danger, Mr. Big, and dozens of the hair bands he knows and loves.

He likes originals. Mickey Mantle's high school basketball photo. Troubled Mets star Darryl Strawberry, on a rare one-off LP called Get Metsmerized! ("I said, 'Now I know why none of you guys were singing stars,' and [Strawbwerry] laughed.") A Harry Potter movie poster signed by J.K. Rowling. A poster signed by the entire 1980 U.S.A. Olympic hockey team.

His two biggest prizes are a note from Lewis Carroll that he procured for $2,000 and that is stashed, seemingly carelessly, under a pile of records and magazines, and Buddy Holly's 1958 New Mexico fishing license.

Ashworth also fishes. And plays bridge and attends St. Paul Saints games. But his obsession is autographs, every one of which tells a story.

Brian Wilson signed Pet Sounds with a barely legible "B W." ("I think he was on medication at the time," Ashworth says.) Joe Mauer signed a high school photo with "Go Cretin." The J. Geils Band's Peter Wolf, among others, drew on-the-spot artwork.

"I told [Motley Crue's] Nikki Sixx, 'I used to be a math teacher. I think you're the only one I know in music that has a number for a name.' He said, 'I think you're right.' Flaming Lips, that was their first album, and he [Wayne Coyne] wanted to show it around. He said, 'There were only about a thousand of 'em. I don't even have one.'

"I was on the bus with Nazareth, and the manager took my album and went in the other room and brought it back with an obviously forged signature of the lead singer. You know, why not just not do it?

"I asked Elvis Costello if he remembered playing at the Longhorn, and he said, 'I certainly do, is it still there?' I said, 'Unfortunately, no.'

"Lou Reed said nothing.

"The only time I've ever asked anyone for their autograph and they've lost their cool was when I asked John Cale to sign this"--Ashworth holds out a copy of the Velvet Underground's first album--"and he pushed it away and quit signing altogether. You'd think that 40 years or whatever would take care of any grudge or whatever.

"Remember Carol Wayne? She was the weather girl on Johnny Carson. She died in an auto accident, so that was a tough autograph." The photo, by the way, is a nude. "John Fogerty said, 'I've met you before!' I said, 'I wish, but we've never met.'

"My aunt knew [wrestler] Gorgeous George, so I got that. Ted Nugent's niece went to Como [Park High], where I used to teach, so I was able to get that. One of my former students is Jack Nicholson's caretaker out in Colorado, so I asked his mother to get me a picture. She said, 'You have to wait for the right time with Jack.' About three years later, she called and said, 'I have your picture.'

"I retired six years ago, and I'm busier than I've ever been. If you have interests, you just find things you enjoy, and you stay busy. Like yesterday, I could have spent all day chasing [Negro League star] Buck O'Neil down. If you're teaching or working somewhere, you can't do that."

As he speaks, the full-to-bursting walls of Ashworth's home press in. He may be at an age when splurging his savings and pension on autographs is his right, but he admits that he's starting to wonder what will become of it all when he's gone.

"I'm hoping to get a student or someone to come stay in the extra room and help take care of the place," he says. "I'm trying to get stuff organized. My only family is my brother, and he just hopes he goes before I do so he doesn't have to deal with it. I think he sees it as a mountain of accumulation, whereas I treasure each thing."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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